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Big Developments Need Good Timing, Not Just Good Location

Surrounding and energizing the plaza are restaurants, shops, a supermarket, a public library and an art center. Because it was not developed piecemeal, Rockville's new downtown core has achieved the critical mass necessary for long-term viability.

Nevertheless, Rockville Town Center is not immune to the risks of timing. As elsewhere in the region, sales of condominiums have slackened, and Town Center apartments are now being rented instead.

National Harbor, in Prince George's County on the Potomac River shore just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, exemplifies the "build it and they will come" vision, or in this case, "build plenty of it."

For phase one, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested just for site acquisition and infrastructure -- utilities, roads, parking, landscaping, docks, marina, public art -- serving the 300-acre enterprise. Animating the streets and waterfront will be scores of restaurants and stores in more than a dozen mixed-use, mid-rise hotel and apartment buildings. Next to these is the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, scheduled to open in spring.

Developed by Peterson Cos., National Harbor's ambitious first phase promises to be a quintessential demonstration of how achieving critical mass at the outset of a new community's life can heighten chances of success.

Phasing is always a daunting issue for public-sector projects, and often an opportunity for big mistakes. Consider the Washington Convention Center, still awaiting development of an adjacent convention hotel and related amenities. Those missing ingredients have proved to be a serious marketing liability.

Then there is the Dulles Metrorail extension, which should have been designed, financed and built years ago.

The convention center and Metrorail extension illuminate one other, very real risk of phasing and thus deferring key project elements. You may get to those phases too late, and sometimes not at all.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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